Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Whither national education?

IN this final of a four-part series on education, The Nut Graph attempts to examine the problems that have become entrenched in the national school system. While public schools were reliable and multi-racial centres of education for Malaysian children not too long ago, today, parents who can afford it are sending their children to private schools. Those who can't, opt for Chinese vernacular schools. There also seems to be a growing trend towards home schooling.

Do these trends indicate that the public school system is failing us? How did it come to this? And what needs to be done to stem the decline? Deborah Loh and Koh Lay Chin attempt to answer these questions.

MALAYSIA's development has been top-down instead of bottom-up. Under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, development was imposed through big infrastructure projects and by creating a nouveau riche class. Under Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's administration, he tried to return the focus to building human capital. Now, Datuk Seri Najib Razak is working to shape his legacy around a New Economic Model (NEM) besides plans to make Malaysia a high-income nation.

High-income, knowledge-economy, escaping the middle-income trap, lifting subsidies, competitiveness — these are the buzzwords that we've been hearing, and will continue to hear, in coming discussions about the NEM when it's finally unveiled.

One wishes that economic planning would also include revamps of the education system. The reasons why public schools are no longer schools of first choice — as spelt out in The Nut Graph's series on vernacular, private, and home-school education — are the same factors that define Malaysia's problems as a mediocre, middle-income economy.

Surely the government sees the link. National schools aren't producing a mass enough number of quality students who in turn become quality graduates at local universities. Add to that race quotas which limit the number of truly bright and deserving students in local institutions, and which dictate just who is "qualified" to receive government scholarships. The brain drain of students educated overseas who prefer to remain and work abroad shouldn't be surprising. Overall, it seems that the public education system from start to finish sends the best minds away instead of retaining them.

Repairing the system

What needs to be fixed? Many things, but let's start by looking at the basic complaints about public schools as highlighted in The Nut Graph's education series, and what they spell for the economy.

Lack of quality teachers

signs advertising tuition classes
Signs advertising private tuition classes

Early childhood education expert and National Human Rights (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng has acknowledged that the "vast majority of teachers are not dedicated to the profession". Also, not enough people are making teaching a "first career choice".

Classrooms in public schools have high student to teacher ratios. They are run by overworked teachers who must juggle between teaching and administrative work. And they are peopled by pupils lacking individual attention. All these make for an uninspiring education system that doesn't promote a culture of learning and exploring.

We see the effects in university graduates who may be text book smart but know little about the world around them.

Too exam-oriented

teacher saying 'now memorise the definitions for over thirty moral  values'
Moral studies in Malaysia require rote learning (public domain | Wiki Commons)

Even the government admits this. Apart from being a structural policy flaw, over-emphasis on academic performance is perpetuated by the first problem above. When there aren't enough teachers, there isn't the luxury of time to indulge in more creative ways of teaching.

As such, mass rote learning and assessment through exams becomes easier to implement. Student performance is easier to measure this way, even if it isn't the most holistic method.

Lack of creativity and teaching of soft skills

Points 1) and 2) together contribute to a teaching culture that discourages students from thinking outside the box and trains them to give only the "right" textbook answer.

Such a top-down teaching method discourages critique and questioning. By extension, students who are discouraged from questioning or offering their views are students who lack confidence in speaking or articulating themselves. No wonder common complaints by employers are that graduates lack English competency, communication and problem solving skills, and general knowledge.

Ethnic polarisation

While the Education Ministry maintains that national schools are necessary for ethnic integration and national harmony, it hasn't addressed the fact that student and teacher populations in most public schools have become dominated by one race.

Parents worry about overzealous Malay Malaysian teachers imposing Muslim preferences on all pupils. Some Muslim parents even prefer a more multicultural environment for their children and deliberately place them in international or private schools for that reason.

While parents like these feel the need to prepare their children for a globalised world, the majority of students are at risk of being insular and uncompetitive, unless their parents make special efforts to ensure otherwise outside of school.

Policy flip-flops

The national education system is already notorious for policy changes every time a new minister helms the portfolio. But reversing the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English was noted as the last straw for parents interviewed by The Nut Graph. So was ambivalence over the maximum number of Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia subjects that a student was allowed to take.

From then on it seemed that interest in private, vernacular and home schools increased. Parents consider it a lack of government vision as to what public education should achieve with regards to the country's needs. There's also a lack of contiguous planning for students to transit from secondary to tertiary education and eventually, the workforce. Hence, employers complain that graduates lack industry-relevant skills and the high number of unemployed graduates are an on-going concern.

As of 2009, only 23% of Malaysia's labour force had tertiary education. It indicates that our economic sectors are still low-skilled and labour-intensive driven. To become a high-income nation, is the workforce first capable of earning higher wages? To become an economy based on skilled and knowledge workers, are our students first being adequately prepared at the pre-school and primary levels? Are we equipping students who can make the transition from manufacturing and assembly to creating and innovating?

It doesn't seem so from the woes parents have about public schools. And if their children are in alternative education systems that ultimately send and keep them abroad, it leaves Malaysia with a dearth of home-grown expertise and skills.

So has the public education system failed us? We can't deny its successes in providing basic education for every child, producing high literacy rates, and helping in the country's move from agriculture to industry.

However, this is no longer enough. Bolder revamps to public schools and tertiary institutions are needed.

Start with de-politicising education. Let education be holistic and creative instead of imposing cultural, religious or political agendas through subjects like Moral and History. Let teaching staff be multiracial, with more public funds invested in their salaries and welfare rather than ill-planned infrastructure projects. More importantly, ensure that teacher promotions are based on meritocracy, not a failed quota system that only entrenches mediocrity.

Let alternative education systems like home-schooling and independent Chinese medium high schools be accepted for local public university entry.

Indeed, what is needed to free the national education system from being defined by ethnic and political considerations is courage and long-term planning. And unless there is that, moving beyond the middle to sustaining our future dream economy is building castles in the air.

courtesy of Nut Graph

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